NOTES ON THE WINTER OF DISCONTENT (written in March 1979)

 

 

 

Further information - including parts of the following - on The Winter of Discontent can be found at:  http://www.revoltagainstplenty.com/index.php/archive-local/18-notes-on-the-winter-of-discontent-1979-80.html

 

 The account here was written towards the end

of that remarkable Winter...

 

 

 

 

The Winter of Discontent was a culmination of a decade of turmoil across the entire social fabric. The cartoon above from The Sun in September 1976 captured this flavour far better than all the nicey, nicey doodles of prattling, concerned lefty cartoonists. Ironically, these drawings transmuted into acts of incitement belying their condemnatory intention.
**********

 

Perhaps what is slowly coming into focus in the UK and moving through a dialectical process of disappearance / reappearance is the painful / joyful birth of an autonomous class movement becoming ever more so in open struggle, like has happened in The Winter of Discontent. The period 1971-74 saw an outburst of class activity in the UK which despite the defeats suffered by some strikes (e.g. the 1971 postal workers' strike) was almost completely successful within its given limits. This activity was in fact over and above the general level of European class struggle in the same period, a factor which made its hidden presence felt in the spontaneous initiatives of the UK proletariat, squeezing them back into forms which were less audacious than the previous period in say France or Italy. Because of the outmoded concepts behind the Tories, Industrial Relations Act (overt repression rather than manipulative, clever repression), the independent initiatives of the working class were continually smothered by trade union bureaucrats and Labour party hacks in political opposition to the Tories.

 

In 1978, that musical darling of the left and clean-cut punk, Tom Robinson had outlined a pessimistic trajectory of increasing fascistic violence against gays, blacks and others in his LP track The Winter of '79. It didn't turn out like this for a musical, doom and gloom recuperator, even though the left felt dismayed, perplexed and saddened by what was to happen. But it was their doom and not those of the protagonists because The Winter of '79 suddenly became one of expectation and hope as the beginnings of a proletarian insurrection suddenly appeared.


In 1974, in order to buy off the workers after the big strikes of the early 1970s against PM Heath's Tories, the incoming Labour Government printed money in order to pay for the -virtually across the boards – wage hikes of 30%. These hikes were not backed up by productivity deals and together with printing money, became a significant factor in the subsequent much higher inflation. This was against the backdrop of economic recession after the ill-fated Barber boom of 1972-73 and the OPEC oil price rises. The Lab' Gov' cuts that followed (hospitals, schools etc) plus the increasingly draconian phases of the social contract which regulated wages were attempts by the Government to recoup their losses and also make the workers pay for the IMF loan to "save" the UK economy.


In 1974 too, a 36% pay increase was awarded to council manual workers by the Lab' Government. Basically, the reality behind the general wage hike was a consequence of the 30% wage increase for the miners due to their unparalleled success in their two major strikes in 1972 and 1974. The Winter of Discontent was in some ways an attempt to get back this kind of wage award and in many ways was successful in doing so. There was a kind of wage drift in the guerrilla strikes: Ford workers 17 and a half %, Tanker Drivers 15%, BBC staff 12 and a half% across the board but which effectively turned out to be 21 and a half% etc. This wage drift which is very damaging to capital accumulation in the UK, is also encouraged by social mores fixed in the no your place, stepping-stone hierarchy of civil society here. At Nottingham University for example, there are 50 grades for 900 manual workers. If one grade gets a wage hike, others then clamour to maintain their differentials which are also at one in everyday life with a kind of petty snobbery.


In effect, pay settlements had been leaky before this winter and aware workers took note of this fact. In a sense, the power of the UK working class was subtly but amply demonstrated through the outcome of the fire-fighter's strike in the fall of 1977. Though the fire-fighters were 'defeated' with the strike ending somewhat violently with a few firemen attacking trade union officials because they only obtained the 10% wage increase allowed within the phase 4 norm of the social contract, nonetheless within a year, fire-fighters were to become among the better paid workers. The Lab' Gov' was fearful of this picket line anger, bitterness and disillusionment among fire-fighters after the strike ended, and quietly intervened in order to "buy off" a more potentially dangerous situation which might have untold consequences. A comparability payment was offered to the fire-fighters which in reality raised their wages by a further 20% - and put their wages on a par with that of a craft worker in the private sector. Furthermore, fire-fighters salaries became indexed against inflation (running in double figures) – a 'privilege' which had previously only been accorded to those mighty forces of reaction, the army chiefs, police and judges, ostensibly as compensation for not being allowed to strike! Yes indeed, workers all over the UK took notice of such a successful 'defeat' and began to see how weak the State has become when challenged by a bit of heavy direct action.


All this – wage drift, social contracts etc were taking place against a unique back drop. More than ever during the period 1974-79, the unions have become part of the State apparatus. The aim of the State (and it's still there) is to make a Concordat, a kind of consensus solution between the three major contending factions in the State: the Confederation of British Industry, the Governing party in Parliament and the Trade Unions (the TUC). In practise it hasn't been as simple as that. Over the last 3 years, the CBI has held back from tripartite meetings at Downing St on the grounds that the balance of power favoured the unions. Relations between them and union chiefs have been conducted on a more in formal level. The CBI's reflections have been right: the unions and the governing party have been more powerful during this period than the bosses, particularly the bosses in the private sector.


Not that the unions are homogenous as they appeared to be, in opposition to the Tories Industrial Relations Act of the early 1970s. Large scale amalgamations are beginning to appear on the horizon, split into blocks with rightist or leftist ideologies. In the wings is a possible amalgamation of the AEWU, the EEPTU and the Boilermakers thereby reinforcing the ideological splits between the "rights" of the AEWU and the "lefts" of the TGWU. Once they were the terrible twins: Scanlon and Jones. How the Tories shuddered! Now no longer. Under the left leadership of Hugh Scanlon, the AEWU helped defeat Barbara Castle's "In Place Of Strife" (1964-70 Lab' Gov') and Heath's Industrial Relations Act. But once postal ballots were accepted the right wing took control with the appointment of John Boyd and Terry Duffy. Has it made all that much difference once real struggle breaks out? When the tool makers struck at British Leyland in 1977, they were denounced by the AEWU big boys together with the government and press. These strikers were labelled reactionary (e.g. by the left as skilled, craft conscious conservatives) and by all and sundry. In what they were doing in messing up the government's plans, these strikers weren't reactionary at all. To be more precise: the conservative identification between skilled workers and union bosses in the engineering industry is largely a cultural one and that link is broken when a bitter dispute breaks out. The cultural symbiosis derives from a disappearing tradition of archaic craft unionism with a quasi-religious, quasi-masonic ritual, interested in "betterment" (workers into oil painting, musical dexterity in a brass band, etc) together also, with a kind of caring, charity outlook (unions and the St John's Ambulance Brigade, etc). Boyd himself joined the Salvation Army when young and has since played the Tuba for one of their bands.


Winter itself: The response of the Government, Press and others. Workers' organisational forms


During The Winter of Discontent (as the workers had partially intuited re the fire-fighters strike etc), the Government was to be found naked and very weak not daring to invoke a State of Emergency as the Tory Heath government was want to do in the early 1970s. They couldn't appear to be as repressive as this seeing they'd staked so much on being different to the previous government.


Nonetheless, having got rid of the hated Tories Industrial Relations act, the incoming Labour government felt incumbent to bring in another, milder version of its own: the 1974, Trade Union and Labour Relations Act. The Act was nebulously phrased in a kind of private Creole jargon of legal terminology which could mean anything according to the interpretation put on it. The Act allowed industrial action "in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute" and the judges deciphered it as they pleased according to their own particular bigoted bent. Under it, judgements were brought in 1977 against officials of the Association of Broadcasting Staff and SOGAT printers. In 1978, it was the turn of the International Transport Workers and the journalists NUJ. In The Winter of Discontent, a writ for secondary picketing was brought by the United Biscuits Co against lorry drivers in Silvertown, East London even though it came to nothing. Justice Acker said during this episode – re the Trade Union and Labour Relations act - that a, "totally unlimited construction of these words would have meant that Parliament was writing a recipe for anarchy, a proposition I am quite unable to accept. There must be a presumption that Parliament does not intend to legislate to bring about its own destruction". Criticism indeed of the Labour government! Generally though, throughout The Winter of Discontent, recourse to the law by the state remained a dead letter.


In many ways, the only weapons (if one can call them that!) at hand for the Lab' Gov' were pitiful pleas to the workers and not the police or even worse. Prime Minister Callaghan, two weeks after Sunny Jim's Guadeloupe conference of World Statesmen and his seemingly unflappable dismissal of the potential workers' insurrection in the UK had to grovellingly beg workers, commenting "only rank and file trade unionists can save the nation". (January 23rd 1979). It is undoubtedly true that union influence in the Cabinet tipped the balance against a declaration of a State of Emergency during The Winter of Discontent. In the Cabinet there are nine union sponsored members, six of them sponsored by the TGWU, AEWU and the NUM (e.g. Roy Mason at the Ulster Office and Eric Varley, Secretary of State for Industry are NUM sponsored MP's etc). At all costs, the Labour Party had to uphold a dearly held belief that TU chiefs could control "their" membership.


Much of the same feeling was echoed by other voiceovers for the State. The Guardian newspaper was overcome with wish-fulfilment which completely misread the facts. For instance, they reported that the lorry drivers secondary picketing had been curbed by the TGWU leadership (in particular by that gallant little follower – no longer leader – of the masses, Moss Evans) when secondary picketing was actually in the process of being intensified (e.g. the flying pickets at the port of Dover). Finally, by late January, realising how insipid they'd been, The Guardian dropped its liberal façade and called for a State of Emergency.


Most people knew that the TUC bosses had no control whatsoever over the workers' strike movement. An ORC opinion poll for a BBC TV Nationwide programme, screened after the six p.m. news, declared that 70% of those interviewed said the unions no longer had any control over their members. Even complete reactionaries like London Broadcasting Corporation's George Gale during one of his chat hours knew that to be the case (even though he had the cheek to say he might be prepared to work for £1 an hour in response to a striking ambulance driver who'd phoned ). Bigots crawling out of the woodwork, as per usual, only read things through their own rabid ideology, demanding that the TUC general council should be shot for treason! But the TUC general council – all 40 of them – were subverting nothing and were the voice of social democratic, Little Englander nationalism, desperately hoping the country would not be torn apart!


Not that The Winter of Discontent was a totally anti-union response from the workers. Far from it. The organisational composition (e.g. the flying pickets and the strike committees etc) were generally it seems, shop stewards or men and women of experience in union matters. Shop stewards have grown in number from 90,000 in 1961 to 300,000 today (1979). The movement was thus not clearly or consciously anti-union in form – although obviously its momentum was heading in that direction.


That shop stewards have played such a part is somewhat surprising considering that during the period of the Lab' Gov' the shop stewards were regarded with hostility by many workers precisely because they were called upon by a social democratic coloured State to police the phases of the social contract on the shop floor. With some grumbling a lot of them submitted to this hideous task. It was quite a turnaround from the previous period under the Tory government when the shop stewards were the main instigators of workers' revolts. Under the Lab' Gov' the shop stewards have been courted by the powers that be like perhaps, never before. Since 1975, shop stewards have been encouraged to do work which used to be handled by full-time officials and a detailed system of consultation has been used to frame wage demands according to the requirements of the social contract. All in all, this process has been a massive attempt to derail and manipulate all that was authentic in the revocable mandated base of the stewards.


This was the general pattern but in specific cases other things happened whereby the shop stewards managed to maintain a distance from union diktat. Some aura of independence was just to say maintained. Sometimes, the central authority of trade union leaders was eroded by local management making deals with shop stewards over the heads of union officials. It seems, lackeying the varying tide, shop stewards suddenly had had enough of what they'd been manipulated into doing by "their" social democratic State and in this Winter of our Discontent, bit the hand that purportedly fed them. In some senses though, the strikes of 1979 haven't so far made a break with an addled shop stewards apparatus as had happened in isolated, local strikes a year earlier. Because the stewards had changed their colours again, there's never during The Winter of Discontent, so far, been a sustained critique-in-action by the workers themselves against the stewards "union on the shop floor" as had happened say in 1977 in the Swan Hunter shipyards on the Tyne when striking outfitters disobeyed national and local union officials plus the shop stewards who together had tried to enforce a return to work. Interestingly too, about the same time, a strike of mainly black women workers at a Tottenham factory in north London elected a strike committee which threw out shop steward representation.


During this last Winter of Discontent, there were a few moments though of this "unofficial" unofficial movement mainly in the car industry. In October 1978, Ford workers, against shop steward advice at Halewood (or "Stormy Forest" as it is locally known), spontaneously ran out of the car factory buckling the factory gates in their haste, thus initiating the nationwide Ford strike which broke the Lab' Gov's 5% wage limit and ushered in the great, rebellious winter. Later, in the middle of February 1979, there was an angry response by some workers at the British Leyland car plant at Longbridge, Birmingham after the stewards and the convenor had recommended a strike the previous Friday but then called for a "disciplined" return to work after other BL plants had failed to follow suit and go on strike. At the mass meeting on 15th of February 1979 some shop stewards were physically assaulted by car assembly line workers. The Winter of Discontent has in its scope and breadth defied all easy description that comes to mind. It's been a movement of neither right nor left and even reactionaries have been swept along by it. As one Economist article commented re the striking airline pilots: their voting habits and sympathies are "to the right of Biggles"!


The revolt of 1979 has thrown up no popular leaders or figureheads to be courted by the media. It's leaderless, it's anonymous and in that sense perhaps the first really modern revolt in the UK. There isn't, unlike the early 1970s industrial struggles, focused around a somewhat glib anti-Toryism, people like Jimmie Reid and the comedian media star, Billy Connolly of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in, or Arthur Scargill and Dennis Skinner during the miners' strikes of 1972 and 1974. All these figure heads remained subdued and more or less bewildered during The Winter of Discontent, although some Trotskyists called on the Parliamentary left to give leadership! But, so much was the aggro against their opportunisms that it was reported that Dennis Skinner's brother (the surcharged and sacked ex-labour councillor from Clay Cross, N. Derbyshire) could barely bring himself to speak to Den.

 

The doom laden patriots of the media have resignedly put out the true Grit Brit, stiff upper lip message of "grin and bear it" but it was the strikers who were doing the grinning! Jokes flourished freely.


NUR – No Use Rushing.


Question: What does ASLEF mean?


Answer: 'As 'lef ma' train in the sidings.'

 

Local working men's clubs had a field day. Some, if not many jokes had a reactionary slant although they were somewhat ambivalent depending on your particular disposition in any case. If you were hostile to work in any case there was plenty to give you succour. One went the rounds in the Belfast clubs. A lorry driver crossed a picket line in Belfast and was immediately stopped by the pickets. He retorted; "Sorry lads, but seeing you were all standing around, I thought you were all back at work". The media's real effect however was to try and instil a feeling of doom and disaster. It turned out to be a reasonably successful strategy in terrifying a fair number of people. It worked on survival fears and English obsessions at one and the same moment. Within a few days, the media reported on shortages of cat litter appealing to that heart-felt English sentimentality about animals. One letter to a tabloid newspaper said: "I can only conclude that the great British trade union movement is strong enough to starve rabbits!"


The media helped in hyping the empty shelves in supermarkets which added to the panic buying but also helped Tesco's net a £7 million a week sales bonanza, (perhaps panic shoplifting would have been more appropriate in this contestation?) at the same time as it emphasised all that was grizzly in the grave-diggers' strike etc. Crematorium workers left bodies in mortuaries and in Liverpool; bodies were dumped in a disused factory formerly owned by Plessey's. Perhaps the latter example could have been turned around by some imaginative tactics on behalf of a few strikers because bodies in Plessey's also has it's funny side and could have helped subvert all that olde England crap epitomised in Gray's Elegy and the country churchyard syndrome. In bourgeois society death is sacrosanct and life isn't. The peculiarly inflected English worship of death remained. At the same time as these events were unfolding here, across the pond, a group of striking mortuary attendants in Wayne County, Detroit, vandalised the mortuary and removed identity tags on the corpses.

 

Generally though, it's been a pretty wild, unpredictable and exciting strike wave. Even the State was in some kind of way thrown into the movement. Midway during the strike wave, his patience wearing thin, PM Callaghan on February 1st 1979 got verbally and poetically accurate, calling the strikers' methods, "free collective vandalism". These paranoid guardians of capital – in moments of crises – often stumble on the truth and begin to express things clearly for once or, at least through the smart turn of phrase. In the late 1960s, Edward Stewart, another Labour Party hack and then, Minister of Education, called rebellious students, "academic thugs". Unfortunately, in both respects, the poetic description has been more than the reality. There wasn't enough academic thuggery against universities / polytechnics / art schools etc in the late 1960s, as now there was insufficient free collective vandalism. 

 

The Winter of Discontent involved many workers who'd never been on strike before – like the Beef Eaters in their medieval regalia no longer standing to attention outside the Tower of London. Mainly it was the State sector workers who were pushing: hospital ancillary workers, council workers, civil servants, social workers, airline and railway workers etc. In the private sector: oil tanker drivers, lorry drivers and car assembly workers. Two big and powerful groups, the dockers and miners who had created so much havoc in the early 1970s didn't strike.

Let's now look at two rebellious scenes: the lorry drivers and what happened in Northern Ireland.


The Lorry Drivers' Strike

It was a totally effective strike. Never having really used their industrial muscle before and therefore never really knowing their own strength, these loner workers of the motorways, nevertheless quickly picked upon the essentials in winning strikes – means which had been practised by other workers in the UK over the years. For instance, the flying picket first effectively used in the St Pancras tenants strike of 1964 and later to be used devastatingly by the miners at Saltley Depot in Birmingham in 1972.
For the lorry drivers, flying pickets were deadly according to the local geography. The effectiveness of flying pickets often depended upon access routes into a town or city. Hull, a geographically vulnerable city caught in a bend on the Humber River, elegantly fell into the hands of the strikers and the strike committee. The one and only main access road into the city from the west – the M62 cross-Pennine route from Liverpool via Manchester, Bradford and Leeds – was blocked by pickets monitoring every vehicle into the port. This was possible because the minor roads from Beverley and the Yorkshire east coast resorts like Bridlington etc couldn't take the heavy juggernauts over the winding Yorkshire Wolds. The Hull strike committee had the seeds within it of a real town assembly and the city authorities had increasingly to recognise its power and bow somewhat before it while it existed.

Elsewhere in Yorkshire and Lancashire too, Hull's audacity perhaps encouraged the very tough action by "the heavy gangs" who, among other tactics, occupied union offices (maybe a way to use a free phone?). Sometimes and obviously against the wishes of the union hierarchy, a "heavy gang" would phone up a boss of a local firm, threatening him with closure if he didn't cooperate. It was almost as effective as picketing because the boss would know the presence of the heavy gang lay in the back ground. However, it is always difficult to stop the many clever forms of strike breaking as the lorry drivers pickets quickly learned, even in cities like Edinburgh which were largely sewn up.
London, once again, proved to be difficult to picket successfully as many a 'militant' had learnt from past experience. The vast conurbation of London is an urban area to get lost in / disappear / change identity etc, according to which urban village one moves through to another. London epitomises the increasing social / personal schizophrenia and general loss of identity. London probably will never be controlled by strike committees, despite their dramatic local impact (e.g. in certain East End boroughs like Silvertown, etc. in The Winter of Discontent) but it is a city eminently suitable for wild, uncontrollable insurrection. In fact, there was something of an overlap between flying and stationary pickets when flying pickets would go round to stationary pickets giving them pep talks to break down the sense of isolation. As one shop steward said in Edinburgh, if this hadn't happened, pickets "might start doing silly things like stopping a milk float or something just for the hell of it." There were some bizarre incidents also. Elsewhere in Scotland, a kind of drunken, beer can "collective" of semi-alchis' spread across a road and on the tap, took some money from working drivers in imitation of the pickets!

During the strike, owner-drivers were treated ambivalently by the strikers. On the one hand, the business-like, independent truckers joined the striking lorry drivers in Hull and referred to the power of the strike committee. On the other hand, many independents openly said they were making a financial killing as they were able to charge what prices they liked for moving commodities. Moreover, owner-drivers were, as far as is known, not stopped from ferrying their wares by the pickets at the ports. With the staggered ending of the strike, agreements were reached between shop stewards who allowed companies which had met the lorry drivers' claim in full and individual owner-drivers to use the east coast ports of Felixstowe, Harwich, Ipswich, Gt Yarmouth and Lowestoft on Monday, January 29th, 1979.

The lorry drivers' strike in the UK during The Winter of Discontent has possible been the most effective truckers strike the world has seen up to this point. Macho, tough, womanising – such is the image of the trucker – though none of the heroic, Hollywood, individualistic side was really evident in the strike. Compare the different images vis-à-vis the UK and the States in this regard. When C&W singer, C.W. McCall made Convoy in 1976 which lauded the heroic ventures of the independent trucker taking on the cops and the Illinois National Guard, the Brits retorted with a piss take by D. Jay, Dave Lee Travis. It wasn't the awe inspiring tone of the American rider with his "swindle sheet" and CB radio calls – "This is Big Ben to Rubber Duck" but the ludicrous, "Plastic Chicken to Super-Scouse" coming up to Birmingham's Spaghetti Junction where they were "bound to lose a few" of their convoy. That anti-heroic, self-mocking penchant in the UK proletariat breathes a need for collectivity or, at least, an air of collectivity – even among its most necessarily isolated workers, like the work of the truck drivers has to be.

Finally, the lorry drivers strike was settled through the liberal, corporatist "we're all in it together" - The Industrial Society - on January 29th 1979. Union bosses figure in The Industrial Society but somewhat removed from their day to day function, a distance which possibly made them a little more acceptable to the striking workers. One of its members, Ron Nethercott, a TGWU official appealed to the striking workers with the now familiar, "save the nation" plea. Like PM Callaghan's, it was more a desperate, empty call from a frightened union official worrying about his future career certainties as The Industrial Society was forced to concede a near total victory to the lorry drivers and defeat for the State. Even so, such a victory was deemed unacceptable by some lorry drivers. In the North West (Lancashire etc) talks between the Hauliers' companies and lorry drivers broke down after the patchy nationwide acceptance of the agreement. The North West had, in fact, been the hardest hit by the lorry drivers because it was there that the code recommended by Moss Evans (T&G boss) was refused by most by the pickets.

The Winter of Discontent was a combination of low paid workers and those who weren't doing so badly at all – like the truckers. It produced a friendly mix and the lorry drivers assisted in a few daring acts of social egalitarianism. Many of the State sector workers on strike only received £10 per week from union funds. Having small savings generally which, admittedly are counterbalanced to some degree by supplementary perks, (cheap housing, free rent for some caretakers, etc) they rapidly ran out of cash. Because of their precarious financial position and perhaps in some ways, being nearer the abolition of money and exchange, they had to look for more direct ways of getting food and in this; they were sometimes helped by the truckers. Like Hull, Liverpool was another city that practically countered the lurid apocalypse conjured up in the media of total chaos with no new order emerging through it. Food was requisitioned in Hull and Liverpool by strike committees (one would like to know more about their composition) and supplied to pensioners as well as – but more clandestinely – the low paid. Among such items was sugar in Hull and fruit in Ellesmere Port on the Mersey. As an adjunct to this, in other essential services there were signs of something new in Liverpool. When Chief Ambulance Officers in Liverpool declared a lock-out on January 23rd, striking ambulance drivers responded by organising a voluntary service of their own.


Ulster/the Irish Republic: The Winter of Discontent and terrorism

Ulster was wrapped up in strikes just like mainland Britain. Indeed, as one newspaper headline put it: the strikes in Ulster had done more damage to the economy of the Province than years of IRA bombs. Catholic and Protestant striking workers joined together. In fact, the first big rash of strikes after the victorious Ford Strike was first felt in N. Ireland. Mainland UK was pipped at the post. Orange populism in the Province had to drop its brutal ways for the moment, changing its appearance and colour to a kind of red in order to probably to keep some semblance of authority. The Reverend Ian Paisley in a brief address to striking health workers in Ballymena said that MPs' were prepared to vote to increase their salaries by £20 per week but then told the workers, "you will get no more than £5". The maniac was trying to ride the tiger and probably knew it!

From the other side, Green went off to Dublin in the Red as The Irish Times in a gleeful editorial (January 27th, 1979) and full of a thinly disguised Republican hatred, slantingly construed the strike as a kind of hatred of the British aristocrats. Well, that came into it but it was more, much more than that.....As the paper said: This is the first occasion for half a century that the plain people, non-U masses, the workers, call them what you will have shown themselves determined on a very broad front not to play the game as laid down by their superiors".......... All this was followed by objections to the "upper crust" and "aristocrats and their upper class executives". It ended with: "Perhaps Tommy's day has arrived....Whether it will be a fine day or not is another matter". But The Irish Times neglected to say perhaps Paddy's day too, because the knock-on effect of The Winter of Discontent encouraged activity in the Republic which was experiencing a wave of unofficial strikes too (e.g. the largest being a national bus strike, plus a strike by Dublin postal workers).

However, amidst all this beautiful chaos and exhilarating confusion and, as to be expected by such an anti-working class terrorist organisation, the Provisional IRA, in the week beginning the 15th of January, chose to go on the offensive in London with an explosion in the Blackwall Tunnel underneath the Thames. There was also an attempt to detonate the vast complex of oil storage containers on Canvey Island, Essex. Fortunately, the device failed but if it had succeeded, its effects would have been horrific for the course of the developing autonomous class struggle. Not only would it have finished off the health workers' strike but it would have made the bomb planted by the Italian State in Milan in 1969, in order to de-rail the struggle of the Italian workers, appear puny in comparison. Hundreds could possibly have been killed as the oil storage containers are situated right next to built-up areas of housing.


The economic outcome of The Winter of Discontent and the Labour Government's experiment with monetarism.

Not only was the government's pay restraint in ruins, its prices policy was too. Once the workers were determinedly winning, it was necessary for the Lab' Gov' to turn most of the heat on the bosses, local government and the middle class rate payers to foot the bill. The government had maintained during The Winter of Discontent a tight hold over the money supply and the Bank of England was expressly forbidden to print confetti money not anchored in real productivity because it would stimulate further inflation. Thus, the IMF financially was not it seems unduly worried by the great wave of strikes. The pound remained relatively stable on the foreign exchanges, if only because the foreign markets were a lot more worried about the future of Iran, after the revolt which overthrew the Shah. One currency under pressure leaves pressure off other currencies. But economic fears were high and money was going into metals like plutonium and gold which were sold at all time highs. In a sense however, turning to gold expressed the general uncertainties about all currencies as gold never falls apart when all currency markets are unstable.

One has to be careful, considering the totality of world economic factors to overestimate the effect of strikes in the UK on sterling. At other times than the winter of 1979 with much fewer strikes, the pound has catastrophically dropped in the City's foreign exchange dealings. A good example is the toolmakers at British Leyland in 1976-77. On February 7th 1979, the Lab' Gov' introduced a new minimum lending rate of 14% which aiding finance capital and the Bank of England put the squeeze on industrial capital. It was high but not as high as the 15% M.L.R. of 1976 (after the IMF loan). Translated into High St banks, it turned into an interest rate of 13% which inevitably made it tighter for small businesses.

It is equally inevitable and must be recognised by insurgent workers – whether they know it or not – that they are wrecking the monetary economy. Ruthless strike action, ineluctably leading to a higher bank rate, are twin pincer movements which also force small businesses (those employing less than 200 workers) to the wall. Unemployment therefore increases. Moreover, it is a process which has a long, drawn-out effect. For instance, the real effect of the lorry drivers' strike on business was felt after its conclusion. Even before the strike wave of 1978-79, twice as many small companies went to the wall in 1978 than four years previously. A nihilistic sense of hopelessness gradually has crept into business dealings in the UK over the last 10 years. As one small businessman put it: "re-budget, re-plan and wait for the next strike to happen"


Dave Wise. March 1979